Pacific research focuses on striking the right balance

Research by Asetoa Sam Pilisi shows the cost of Pacific people serving community over their personal needs, can add up.

Image of doctoral candidate Asetoa Sam Pilisi
Doctoral candidate Asetoa Sam Pilisi asks: "how much is too much?" Photo: Elise Manahan.

The Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland doctoral candidate is exploring Pacific self-care and burnout. More than 1100 participated in a survey posing the culturally controversial question – “Is it selfish to look after yourself?”

Pilisi (Alofi North and Avatele of Niue, Sato'alepai and Vailoa Palauli of Sāmoa) says his research is aimed at collecting the experiences of Pacific people born in Aotearoa. 

He said the act of ‘service’ for Pacific people tended to nett cultural credits but is sometimes at the expense of other areas of their life, including personal, physical and mental wellbeing. 

“You have to ask the question about how much is too much? What is the actual cost of serving others because that’s culturally expected, even at your own expense.” 

There was power and strength in the collective of Pacific communities, often coming together to increase resourcing, finding workarounds when there were shortfalls. However rising to the occasion whenever there was a need from within the family, the community, and church, came at a cost. 

“You have to ask the question that if you are fulfilling collective responsibilities, at what point do we stop to consider our own personal wellbeing. How do we search for balance?”

Working with a steering committee from the Pacific community, Pilisi was acutely aware of posing a question that struck at the heart of Pacific cultural practise. Some felt that he was imposing a western lens on the lived-experiences of the Pacific diaspora.

“We’re asking people to stop and take an inward look at ourselves,” a practise he acknowledged was outside of Pacific peoples’ norms, because the focus is on the collective rather than the individual.

“Collectively we do some beautiful stuff that supersedes at times what our individual pursuits are unable to do, but it can come at a cost and its often not sustainable.”

Part of the current research looks at understanding the burnout experience. Working with a community steering group has been invaluable gauging differing perspectives.

“Our communities do understand what it means being  ‘spent or operating on an empty tank’ but for various reasons, even if on empty, when duty calls, we get up and we keep going. Our behaviour is influenced by gettting up and doing awesome things,” creating a sense of pride and mana.

You have to ask the question about how much is too much? What is the actual cost of serving others because that’s culturally expected, even at your own expense.

PhD candidate Asetoa Sam Pilisi Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland

However he acknowledged that for some, rising to the challenge to help others was driven by markers at the other end of the spectrum, such as shame and stigma.

“So we will do something out of fear, out of shame and not being stigmatised, not wanting to be ostracised. Guilt of not fulfilling collective responsibilities or letting others down can also be contributing factors.”

Selfishness was a concept counter to Pacific cultural values and saying ‘no’ was a difficult undertaking.

"What does self-care look like? What does looking after yourself look like?"

Pilisi recently attended the American College of Preventive Medicine 2024 Conference in Washington DC earlier this year, he says the experience highlighted the unique underlying kaupapa of Māori and Pacific research.

“It was a very different experience for me, it gave me an appreciation for the approaches taken here.”

Pilisi is currently half way through his PhD research and was grateful for the support received from New Zealand’s Pasifika Medical Association (PMA), an organisation that is active in promoting and supporting Pacific health, and have partnered with Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland, to grow Pacific research.

“I’m grateful for the many hands and hearts involved in this research, so that means I have to show the same energy and do all the boring/hard things day in, day out!” 

Media contact

Kim Meredith | Pacific media adviser

M: 0274 357 591